It’s easy to think that theology is something we do in our spare time, with a glass of wine in our hand perhaps. It has become something abstract, with concepts that can be taken apart and put back together without anyone getting hurt.
Each time I visit Sri Lanka, I am confronted with the need for a theology that works on the ground and is real. This visit was no different, travelling to areas where the civil war was fought out between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and government forces and meeting those who had been displaced or whose farms had been effected. Most moving of all was time spent with those mothers and fathers who had lost children during the conflict, mainly through organised ‘disappearances’. To hear their pain and torment, not knowing what has happened to children lost 20 or 30 years ago, was heart-wrenching. One mother tried to put it in come context by asking us how we would feel to lose our young child for half an hour, multiplied hundreds and thousands of times.
Today is the International Day of the Disappeared, declared in 2012 by the United Nations as a day when all those who have been abducted, falsely imprisoned or deliberately taken from their families in times of war as well as peace, are remembered along with their families. In Sri Lanka, the conservative estimate is 20,000+ individual men, women and children, taken by government agents and the LTTE, forced to fight or confess, or be tortured and raped. We visited a place where just this week a mass grave of over 100 bodies was unearthed by accident during building work. This is a drop in the ocean for families who have been torn apart by loss and trauma, but more by the unbearable hope that their child might still be alive.
It is nearly ten years since the brutal end of the Sri Lankan Civil War and yet so little has changed. The families of the disappeared are frustrated by promises of help and news, only to find that their grief is ignored. Like planes stacked at a busy airport, each families waits for news, but the prospect of landing, of progress is non-existent. It is this prolonged frustration, grief and trauma that could easily become the grievance of the next outbreak of violence.
What is to be done? First, we pray, and in prayer, we restore the dignity of each person who has been brutalised in this and every conflict. A mass grave offers no resting place for the dead, instead it turns mangled bodies into garbage. The first priority is to restore to each their humanity, the name they were given and the family that nurtured them. Each story, each individual is of sacred worth and infinite value, and the perpetrators of these atrocities cannot be allowed their victory.
These bones, whether we like it or not, are also evidence, silent witnesses to the manner of death and the perpetrators. In a political vacuum, few, apart from the families themselves, wish to hear the secrets these remains can offer up. Better they remain hidden, silent, until there is a way to deal with them with dignity, justice and hope. History has a way of breaking into the present in chaotic ways and so we are not in control of the process and manner of disclosure. There is every chance that, given the current climate, these discoveries, these people, will become pawns in a political game and the truth will be sacrificed to expediency.
The path to peace and reconciliation is a deeply painful one, with the heaviest burden borne by the most victimised. Perhaps all we can do is walk alongside and continue to long for a better time. In the meantime, we would do well to heed the advice of John Hewitt:
So I say only: Bear in mind
Those men and lads killed in the streets;
But do not differentiate between
Those deliberately gunned down
And those caught by unaddressed bullets:
Such distinctions are not relevant . . .
Bear in mind the skipping child hit
By the anonymous ricochet . . .
And the garrulous neighbours at the bar
When the bomb exploded near them;
The gesticulating deaf-mute stilled
by the soldier’s rifle in the town square
And the policeman dismembered by the booby trap in the car . . .
Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered by justice and mercy;
these will enlist loyalty and courage often,
and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.
Bear these eventualities in mind also;
they will concern you forever:
but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.